Indian minister to welcome Dalai Lama in Arunachal Pradesh despite China warning

India said that as a secular democracy, it would not stop the Dalai Lama from travelling to any part of the country. Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters New Delhi, Delhi, India Mar 03, 2017, 02.35 PM (IST)

India will receive Buddhist religious leader Dalai Lama during his trip to its north-eastern border state flanking China, Arunachal Pradesh, despite Beijing's warning that this will damage ties. China claims the state as its territory. New Delhi, on its part, has said India that as a secular democracy it will not stop him from travelling to any part of the country.

China has called visits by Indian and foreign leaders to the region an attempt by New Delhi to claim the territory.   

In fact, India's junior internal minister Kiren Rijiju said that he will visit the Dalai Lama during his visit to the Tawang Buddhist monastery next month. The Dalai Lama is visiting the monastery after eight years. Rijiju, who is from Arunachal Pradesh and is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's man for Tibetan issues, said: "He is going there as a religious leader, there is no reason to stop him. His devotees are demanding he should come, what harm can he do? He is a lama."

The Chinese consider the Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist, and his visit may ratchet up tensions at a time when New Delhi is at odds with China on strategic and security issues, and unnerved by Beijing's growing ties with arch-rival Pakistan.

The Modi government has been keen to increase its public engagement with the Tibetan leader, a significant moving away from India's earlier line of keeping him at an arm's length for fear of upsetting Beijing.

"It's a behavioural change you are seeing. India is more assertive," Rijiju told Reuters in an interview. 

"The Dalai clique has for a long time carried out anti-China separatist activities and on the issue of the China-India border has a history of disgraceful performances," Chinese spokesperson Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing.

China investing nearby

While the Dalai Lama's current visit was initiated months in advance, and approval for the April 4-13 trip predates India's recent disagreements with China, the move to go ahead with the visit under the present circumstances points to the Modi government's willingness to use diplomatic tools at a time when China's economic and political clout across South Asia is growing.

China is helping to fund a new trade corridor across Pakistan, and has also invested in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, raising fears of strategic encirclement -- called a string of pearls by India and United States.

A Taiwanese parliamentary delegation's visit to Delhi last month, also angered Beijing, which regards Taiwan as an integral part of China.
In December, President Pranab Mukherjee hosted the Dalai Lama at his official residence with other Nobel prize winners, the first public meeting with an Indian head of state in 60 years.

Some officials said India's approach to the Tibetan issue remained cautious, reflecting a gradual evolution in policy rather than a sudden shift, and Modi appears reluctant to go too far for fear of upsetting its large northern neighbour.

India's foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was in Beijing last week on a visit that analysts said was aimed at stabilising relations between the world's most populous countries.

Tangible shift

That said, Modi's desire to pursue a more assertive foreign policy since his election in 2014 was quickly felt in contacts with China.

At one bilateral meeting early in his tenure, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj asked her Chinese counterpart whether Beijing had a "one India" policy, according to a source familiar with India-China talks, a pointed reference to Beijing`s demand that countries recognise its "one China" policy.

"One India" would imply that China recognise India`s claims to Kashmir, contested by Pakistan, as well as border regions like Arunachal Pradesh.

India`s hosting of the Dalai Lama since he fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule has long irritated Beijing. But government ministers often shied away from regular public meetings with the Buddhist monk.

"These meetings were happening before. Now it is public," Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in the Indian town of Dharamsala, said in an interview.

"I notice a tangible shift. With all the Chinese investments in all the neighbouring countries, that has generated debate within India," he said.

The chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh, a member of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, met the Dalai Lama in New Delhi in October and officially invited him to visit the state.

On the Dalai Lama`s last visit in 2009, the state`s chief minister met him. This time he will be joined by federal minister Rijiju, a move the Chinese may see as giving the trip an official imprimatur.

New Delhi has been hurt by China's refusal to let it join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the global cartel that controls nuclear commerce.

India has also criticised Beijing for stonewalling its request to add the head of a banned Pakistani militant group to a UN Security Council blacklist.

Rory Medcalf, Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said New Delhi appeared to have been surprised by China's inflexibility since Modi came to power, fuelling distrust in the Indian security establishment.

"India does feel that the cards are stacked against it and that it should retain and play the cards that it does have," he said. "The Dalai Lama and Tibetan exile community is clearly one of those cards."

(WION with inputs from Reuters)